Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Scott Reid on electoral reform

I know next to nothing about Conservative MP Scott Reid and, based on his website, I see that he opposed same-sex marriage and supports cutting gas taxes, which is two strikes in my book, although I imagine that both of those stances reflect the majority view in his small-c conservative riding of 'the eastern Ontario government-hating boonies' (officially known as Lanark-Frontenac, Lennox and Addington).

Still, if this article (found via the Idealistic Pragmatist) about electoral reform (available in Canadian Parliamentary Review) is any indication, he's a pretty sharp guy (and a pretty good writer as well).

Reid talks about the difficulties in achieving electoral reform because the power to reform the system is generally in the hands of the people who were elected by the unreformed version of the system. He points out how even those jurisdictions which have achieved a better electoral system, generally didn't get it because the ruling party decided to do what was in the best interests of their country,
"The depressing truth, which became clear as the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs undertook its study of different roads to electoral reform earlier this year, is that electoral reform in the countries we examined had rarely been achieved by means that Canadians could - or would want to - emulate. In practice, electoral reform has typically been imposed in three different ways - imposition by outside forces, unilaterally by the majority party or by accident.

Ireland's much-admired STV system was imposed by the departing British in the early 1920s as a way of ensuring that the Protestant minority would not be frozen out of the Irish parliament, as they might have been under British-style FPTP system. Germany's much-admired MMP system was imposed by the victorious Allies in the late 1940s as a way of ensuring that no marginal party could ever again elbow its way into a position of power, as the Nazis had done in 1933. Scotland's MMP system was imposed by London. The innovative STV model now being used for the legislature of the Australian Capital Territory was imposed by Australia's federal parliament. Clearly, this method of achieving electoral reform is not open to Canadians.

In a number of other jurisdictions, perfectly good electoral reforms have been imposed for overtly partisan reasons....

Reid also does a good job summarizing how electoral reform came about in New Zealand (almost by accident) and describing some of the mistakes that were made in British Columbia (although he praises B.C. as the "world's most successful effort, to date, for building a popular mandate for electoral reform.")

Most impressively, he concludes with some well crafted recommendations for how electoralshouldrm shold proceed at the Federal level,
"I am advocating that Canada should use a preferential referendum whereby voters would place a '1' on the ballot beside their preferred option, a '2' beside the option that they like second-best, and so on. If no single option won a majority of the votes, the least-favoured option would be dropped from the ballot, and the ballots of voters who had chosen this option as their first preference would be redistributed to the options that had been their respective second choices. This process would continue until a single option achieves a clear majority.

Under a preferential referendum, voters would have the option of indicating their preference for the option of which they most approve, without having to make FPTP the default option. Advocates of all options could aggressively campaign in favour of their preferred option without having to become de facto champions of the status quo, as occurred in British Columbia.

Preferential balloting is the best way of arriving at consensus outcomes, when no obvious majority exists; this is why it is used by many political parties, including my own, for selecting their leaders."

This is pretty much the same conclusion I came to at the end of being fairly closely involved with the referendum in B.C. and I certainly agree with Reid that this is the best approach to take federally.

Alas, the prospects for electoral reform don't look too good right now at the federal level. Jack Layton has demonstrated fairly clearly in this minority government that the NDP's top priority is not proportional representation (as he claimed a couple of times while trying to lure Green party voters to vote NDP) but is instead the increased social spending which is the NDP's core issue. Meanwhile, the Liberals are pursuing an almost comical policy of trying to say the right things while doing nothing - just read this skewering of their latest shenanigans (a Scott Reid press release). The Bloc claims to support electoral reform, but I'm skeptical about their level of interest in pursuing a policy which would only serve to marginalize them.

Finally the Conservatives, despite the presence of Scott Reid, have said and done little on the electoral reform front. Personally, I think there are too many Conservative party members and backers who dream of someday forming a majority government and being able to run the country without compromise for them to support any real action on electoral reform. I hope I am wrong, but in the end, I think we're back to Reid's basic point, which is that if Canadians want an improved electoral system, it will be up to us to force it on the politicians.

Note: The Pragmatist's post also links to a couple of other articles in the last issue of Canadian Parliamentary Review on electoral reform which are also interesting, but if you're only going to read one, read the one by Scott Reid.


  • We here in Lanark et al prefer to be called the eastern Ontario government-hating boondocks' thank you very much!

    By Blogger Kirith Kodachi, at 12:36 PM  

  • Sorry Bill, my mistake. I was going to call it 'the sticks', but 'the eastern Ontario government-hating sticks' just sounded like the name of a Don Cherry owned minor league hockey team or something.

    By Blogger Declan, at 1:15 PM  

  • Declan - one small correction: Increased social spending is not the NDP's core issue; it is the NDPs only issue.


    By Blogger deaner, at 3:03 PM  

  • I'm an NDP member, but you can colour me disappointed that proportional representation didn't trump the bargaining chips they actually used, both in the spring and now. I can understand the reasoning behind that -- electoral reform could make it look like they're just out to make more power for themselves rather than actually, you know, helping people. But if they weren't going to grab the bull by the horns now, then when?

    I would like to think things would look different under a Conservative minority government. Odds are I'm wrong on that, though.

    By Blogger Idealistic Pragmatist, at 3:17 PM  

  • Dean - nah, I'm going to stick with core issue. You've got human rights, animal rights, product safety, missile defense, electoral reform, environmental regulation, labour laws, minimum wage increases, decriminilization of marijuana, I could go on - and on.

    In fact one of my concerns with the NDP is that they have too many things they would try do in government (although I agree with many of their non-spendiing related stances) not that they have nothing in mind besides increased social spending.

    IP - perhaps the next election will lead to a Lib-NDP minority government and then Jack can get us some PR - we can hope, anyway.

    By Blogger Declan, at 4:45 PM  

  • There's a mistake in the article. The ACT electoral system imposed by the federal aprliament was a particulalry evil version of MMP. The ACT adopted STV as a result of a local campaign originating in the ACT and vigourously opposed by federal MPs. Tasmania also adopted STV as a local initiative, but then they have a reasonable claim to inventing it.

    By Blogger Alan, at 3:20 AM  

  • I too wish the NDP would push harder for electoral reform, but it is unfair to say they are doing nothing. Ed Broadbent has been working very hard on this file.

    By Blogger Greg, at 5:14 AM  

  • Thanks for the correction (and the link) Alan, I got the impression Reid was downplaying the impact of grassroots, but it's nice to have some confirmation.

    I thought Thomas Hare invented STV - although certainly in terms of actual practical imlpementation the Tasmanians led the way.

    Greg - I never said the NDP was doing nothing, just that it wasn't their top priority. Still, you have to admit that so far they have accomplished (next to) nothing, but given their small number of seats that is to be expected. It's probably surprising they have accomplished as much as they have (in general).

    By Blogger Declan, at 9:12 AM  

  • My only thought about why they are not pushing harder is that they may see this parliament as only temporary and are hoping for a more stable coalition after the next election. Such a change in the system is going to be very tough and will take more time than this parliament has.

    By Blogger Greg, at 10:25 AM  

  • Scott Reid makes some good points, but I'm not sure about his history. Weimar Germany used a form of PR, though I'm not sure they had adopted the 5% cutoff for representation. In any case, the Nazis were not a marginal party in 1933 - far from it, unfortunately.

    My preference for reform is MMP with regional multi-member constituencies elected by some sort of open list (e.g., you choose a party, then rank the candidates from that party, in addition to voting for your local MP). Reform is important, yes, but it's hardly the most important issue facing the country. Layton, I think, knew that the Liberals would never have supported electoral reform as the price of his support - one of at least the Conservatives or Bloc will have to be onside to make it happen. Failing that, more NDP MPs would help too.

    By Blogger JG, at 10:57 AM  

  • Josh - I think the point about Germany was that if a party is prevented from getting a foothold in parliament than it can be prevented from growing, not that the Nazis would have been prevented from taking power once they gained (relatively) broad support.

    It's a fair point that there are bigger priorities than electoral reform, obviously the NDP feels the same way (that was my point).

    By Blogger Declan, at 12:00 PM  

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